Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008
THE BATTLE FOR SIDDI BARRANI
My name is Tom Barker, I was a Pte 2982252 in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. I am now 75 years old and I am writing this from memory for those people who have a thirst for adventure, and those who have a desire to know what it is like to go into a strange land to meet someone you don't even know and kill him before he kills you. I am not a writer, so if I make mistakes I hope you will bear with
me. I would like to share with those of you who are interested the moments of joy, loneliness, sadness, boredomm, exitement ,adventure, and so on. There are no formalities like "good morning, it's a nice day, how about a fight to pass the time of day". No it does not work like that.
It began in my case because I became disenchanted with what I was doing, mainly working for The Norwest Construstion Co, Litherland Rd, Liverpool. The foman's name was Bill Nightingale.
He was like a second father to me, good bloke, drank like a fish, swore like a trooper, but a rough diamond none the less. I put this bit in because if any family of Bill happen to read it, I would say to them, they were fortunate indeed to have Bill as their forebear.
One saturday morning in Glasgow it was raining, I was covered in mud from the trench I was laying pot pipes in so the local gpo could run telephone wires through them. Suddenly I thought what am I doing here in this mud, wet, and cold. This was only one of many days of bad weather and the uncertainty of the future. I suddenly, on impulse, jumped out of the trench and went to the hut and told Bill I was going for a walk back to the digs to get a bath. He just muttered "ok, don't get wet Tommy" and continued reading the news paper while sitting on a stool by the stove. So I took off down Suchiehall St. and I passed a display board that had a bloke in a kilt beckoning me to join the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
I had always wanted to join the navy, but I was too young at the time when I got the bug. But now I was older, I could do as I pleased, I thought. On impulse, mabye that's what brought me so much grief. I never stopped to think. But when you are young etc. So I went back to the digs and when Bill came in I told him I
was thinking of joining the navy. Bill got upset and when he composed himself said "you write your dad and when he writes you back you show me the letter. Then you can go if he says yes." Well I got the letter back and gave it to Bill. So to do the right thing I worked out my notice of quitting. With a good luck handshake from Bill and the others I walked into the Argyll's recuiting office thinking I could join the navy from there, foolish boy.
When I came out of that building clutching a bright new King's shilling and a railway warrant to transport me to Stirling castle I was still trying to fugure out how that bloke had got me to sign my name to join the Argyll's. But it didn't matter that much at least I was out of that cold muddy trench. It wasn't till later
I discovered I was in that trench from choice. But in the army if you are in the same situation you don't have that choice any more you stay where you are put and lump it (put up with it no matter what).
So I arrived at Stirling Castle, no trumpets, no red carpet, in fact I said good morning to the porter. He looked at me as if I were a Martian, mumbled something and shuffled away. They teach you how to walk, talk, sleep stood up. You are also taught to be aggressive, skilled with weapons and most of all
they instil in you confidence in yourself and in your team mates. Little did we know we would be using these skills the following year.
I did my training at Stirling Castle Scotland, and I would like to thank all those instructors who really put us through the hoop. as they repeated over and over again "You will do it, and do it till you get it right, and one day you will thank me for being so tough on you". Well they were right, and that is why I can now write this story as a salute to them. Sgt. Campbell and Sgt. Hutchinson I can remember vividly. Sgt. Hutchinson had tears in his eyes, I think he was a wee bit foo (had a drink and was feeling sentimental) as he bid us farewell on the last morning as we marched out of the main arch at Stirling Castle en rout for Aldershot.
Then we arrived at Aldershot, Wellington barracks, where we were issued with real rifles and sharp bayonets. We went on to the firing rang to zero the rifle you had been issued with. If you did not zero it properly you only had your self to blame if you got shot by the enemy because you missed and he got you instead. From there we were transported to Palestine on the troop ship HMT Somersetshire.
We arrived in Haifa harbour, then we got off the ship and got on to busses which took us to Jenin. We did police duty in Palestine, We got used to marching in the hot sun and being sniped at. Then we were moved to a place called Jericho and I swam in the Dead sea just so I could say I had done it. I think that is where we were when WW2 started. Any way it was not long after that we found our selves in the Libyan desert at a place called Fuka. There was an air strip not far away.
We had been in the desert for months but it seemed like years. Every day the same hot sand, the burning sun, warm water in water bottles that also contained tablets, so it was drinkable. Some one said "Your ration of water is half a bottle, so make it last." I was loath to drink the evil smelling concoction but when thirst took a hand I had no choice. We had moved from Palestine to Egypt then via El Alamain to this position in the desert. The trip from Cairo to the last railway station in Egypt was more like a travelling circus than an army on the move.
There were Arabs running up and down the length of the train screaming "Eggs a bread, eggs a bread, you want bread effendi? Very nice, very clean, very fresh, or my friend he have oran-ges (oranges)". These blokes were running bare foot on the roof of the train as its overloaded carriages were swaying from side to side as the train chuffed along. Heads were hanging out of windows trying to keep cool as the further away from civilisation we got the hotter it seemed to get. The fact that the train was over crowded did not help the fresh air situation either. However, we got to El Alamain and it was a pleasure to get off that over heated tin of sardines, by now it began to smell like one.
We moved from the railway to a position in the desert. Almost immediately began to dig into what we thought was going to be sand. Under two to three inches of sand was solid rock. The officer with us was upper crust, young and knew it all. "I'll take that pick Barker." he said, and he passed me the glasses he had been wearing. "Hold those for me while I show you how to do this." he said. And when I suggested he wear the glasses to stop chips of rock hitting him in the eye, he stopped picking and snarled "Then the bladdy rock would shatter the bladdy glasses, idiot, and I would get glass in my eye." The other blokes had a titter at this and the officer resumed his attack on the rock only to have the pick bounce off the hard
rock. It hit him on the ankle with a howl accompanied by "excreta" and some thing about procreation but there were only four letters in it. I dodged as in a rage he flung down the pick.
The next day a compressor and drill arrived. We all wanted a turn on the hammer, because one bloke who had a go remarked "Oh I love this, it's like dancing with Betty Grable". The bloke who came with the machine said "You might think different after an hour or two". We got the trench dug finally and the next day we moved further up the desert. I was very dischuffed about this because we had put so much effort in the hot sun to get that trench dug. Now some one else was going to occupy it with out having moved a handful of sand.
Still the new surroundings were different. Just miles and miles of excreta coloured procreation (there's
that four letter word again) all, if you get my drift. The only relief we got was when a truck would come and take us to the sea where we could bathe and with our clothes on we washed them at the same time. But we had to keep an eye open for enemy fighter aircraft because the waves made so much noise they could
dive on us without warning. The heat of the day would dry our clothes in no time at all. Some times we would send our clothes back to Egypt to be laundered. But they some times did not get there or got blown up on the way back to us, so that is why some times we had to make do with what we had on at the time
Then back to our position in the desert. We had for some time now sent patrols out at night. Some times they lost a man. Some times they brought back a prisoner. These groups would go out at dusk and find out where the Italian positions were and some times if a dust storm blew up they would not get back that night. Also, men got lost in the desert due to dust storms, quick sands, snipers, booby traps, etc, etc.
Later on in the piece some bright boy came up with a good idea, "Why not motorise this operation". So the long range desert group was formed. This move gave us some respite but the powers that be thought
we should not be idle so they gave us some marching to do.
We would do a compass march to this spot then when we got there we had to go to another point then we could go back to where we started from. And it kept us fit and on our toes. These rambles or nature walks, call them what you will, became to be known as stunts, "We are going on another stunt tomorrow." "Oh
aye, that's nice, would you bring me back an ice cream should you see a vendor?" some one would sarcastically ask. Another would add his two pence worth "If ye thenk ye wull find an ice cream ceart oot herrre yer heed's fu 'o' wee motors an' they're ah broke!". This would bring a guffaw of laughter and we would make light of it. But it was getting very boring.
Then one afternoon we saw a cloud of dust which usually accompanies vehicles on the move and sure enough a column of 30 cwt trucks came toward us. We relaxed as we identified them as ours. As the first one stopped the others stopped along side so that soon there were about 20 trucks parked side by side. The first thing that was obvious to me was 'all we need now is for a enemy plane swoop over and he would get the lot with one hit. "Right on truck" and we got into the trucks and soon we were being whisked across the desert. Dust from the truck in front were making it difficult to breath, so we got our pullover's out and wrapped them round our face. The ride was also very bumpy because we were not on a road. Some times a small hillock would bounce the truck and every one in it would come down with a bone jarring thump onto the wooden seats.
Finally the trucks stopped and we got out and formed up to march. But then an officer strode to the front of the now gathered force and held up his hand. Every one was quiet as the officer began to speak, "You men have trained hard in this desert and now we are about to see if it will pay off. I have no doubts in my mind that you are the cream of the British Army and as such this is going to be a doddle, we are going to take Siddi Barrani from the Italians and we are going to hold it. We will now say a prayer. Our father who is in heaven'" and so on. When that was finished the medical officer stepped forward and said "O.K. now any one wanting to go to the toilet, I suggest you go now, because if you get hit you stand a better chance with empty bowels." "bloody charming" I heard some one mutter, " "This is fo real!".
After that we formed up in the now fading light and set off across the desert. No talking was the order. I did not feel like talking, my mind was full of "what are we marching into." This was no stunt this was for real. We marched until we stopped and everyone was whispering "The Italian positions are only half a mile away". This was about 2 in the morning so we set to and quietly dug a depression in the ground to just accommodate our body. The order was whispered from mouth to mouth, "No smoking, no talking, lay down in your pit and wait for day light. I lay still and tried to doze but I could not even do that because
it was cold. It really can get cold in the desert at night, and because of the inactivity it seemed to be colder than usual.
It seemed an eternity till dawn and in the desert you can see a false dawn. As I raised my head slowly to peer over the lip of my cover I looked left and right and in the dim light I could just make out some of the bumps of greatcoats covering some blokes as they hunkered down in their cover, Then the real dawn began to lighten the sky and as the tip of the sun began to show on the horizon. Some of our blokes began
to stand up and stretch, and one bloke began to shake his blanket, I thought "What are they doing if the enemy are supposed to be half a mile away". I began to think to myself "This is just another exercise." When suddenly a sound like a car with flat tyre's came rushing through the air and then an enormous
explosion. The bloke with the blanket was gone.
Every one who had been standing now for a brief second stood like statues then as if by magic they disappeared into the ground as more whistling noises and bangs were heard. Now when I looked
out all I could see was dust and sand hanging in the air. The ground was now shuddering as explosion after explosion made the sand and dust into a blanket it was impossible to see through. I could feel grit in my mouth, my eyes were watering. Even though I was wearing eye shields made of thin clear plastic the dust still got in . My rifle would not work because it was clogged with dust, and the bloke next to me had managed to get his bolt out and was licking the dust off it and spitting it out on to the ground.
I saw him move and he beckoned so I moved with him and we blundered into a truck so we ducked under it for cover as something smashed into the front of the truck. There was a bloke under the diff of the truck and as I shouted for him to get out one back tyre burst as something ripped through it. The bloke was trapped and slowly crushed as the diff settled down on his back. The terrible screams, I often wake up to at night, wet through with sweat and wait for the dawn to break.
Some one was shouting "Get away from the transport they are aiming at the transport." And I suddenly realised that made sense, so I nudged the other bloke and as we got up we could see into the cab. The bloke behind the wheel was dead. We did not have to check, because with half a head you would have
to be. But the bloke on this side was struggling to open the door. He had the window down but the door was jammed. So I grabbed the handle and pulled but the handle was hot and burnt my hand. Flames were now licking the inside of the cab and I shouted "'get through the window." He shouted "I can't the engine has pushed back and caught my foot, getting too hot in here." Then there was a whooshing noise as flames leaped up driving me back from the window" The bloke inside began screaming "Shoot me, shoot me you stupid b-d shoot me." I could not do that. Then he was quiet and I reached in to see if I could pull him near the window. Every thing was red hot and as I pulled on his arm it was like peeling a pullover off. The skin peeled away and I had to let go and retire as the flames got higher.
Some one in the fog of sand and dust was screaming fix bayonets and as I drew my bayonet I saw Ginger Craig next to me he grinned at me and he slammed down on his bayonet to fix it to his rifle. We moved forward away from the truck as another shell exploded. Suddenly there were noises like angry hornets as bits of shrapnel whizzed by. Ginger Craig suddenly fell to the ground like a rubber doll losing
air. I went over to him and he was very pale and he said "I'm cold Tommo". So I took off my great coat and wrapped it round him and asked "Where are you hit?" He said "I don't know but I'm cold Tommo and my chest is numb". I opened his shirt but the field dressing would not cover the hole, and blood was pumping out. I felt so helpless because I could do nothing to stop it. Another bloke came and put his coat over him but he still groaned "I'm cold Tommo". Then some one hit me on the shoulder and screamed in my ear, "Leave him you can't help him, listen for the whistle" and he was gone in the fog of dust.
So I got up and followed those I could see and we seemed to move into clearer light. Now I could see the others and we were more or less in a skirmish line about four yards apart. On my right was a bloke called Healy. One time as we lay on the sand a shell landed right between us. It threw op a little sand but did not go off instead it twisted side ways and booled away behind us.
We were advancing on the dug in Italians, the officer in charge of our lot was up to the mark. He would blow his whistle when he saw the enemy guns were being reloaded so we would get up and move forward. When we heard the whine of the shells we got down. Trouble was when we got up to advance again some of the blokes did not move,
One bloke was advancing the next minute his head was gone and twin spurts of red came from his neck as he collapsed to the sand. So it was not a bayonet charge like in the first world war where every one went over the top yelling and screaming and getting mown down. This was more sedate in that we stupidly walked forward for half a mile like the metal ducks at the fair ground, while the Italians in the cover of dugouts in the sand potted at us when they felt like it. It was a bit unequal in that we were in full view of their guns while all we could see was a steel helmet with two eyes peering out over the sand. And most of us could not shoot back at these tiny targets because of the clogging dust on our rifle bolts. However this was now about to change because we had got so close to them they were now not sighting their guns but looking down the barrel and firing direct. This had a negative affect because the shells were hitting the ground and not going off. Also some of the Italians were now panicking and running off into the desert. "Any where to get away from that advancing line of bayonets." one Italian said. There were Italian bodies laying in all kinds of postures. One had a bayonet still in his body. I thought the Jock it belonged to had either not fixed it properly and it came off his rifle as he withdrew or he had used it like a sword. Mabye had been too busy fending off another Italian and just forgot about it. Either way it did not matter now because it was over.
I sat on the sand and the quiet was unreal except for a ringing in the ears. A bloke came to me and his mouth was working but I could not hear him. I just grinned and he grinned and walked away and saw a bottle of wine stood up in the sand. So he went over and picked it up and it blew his hand off. It had a hand
grenade tied under it. Then when I got up to go to him my right foot felt wet in my boot but I did not bother about it I was more concerned for the bloke minus one hand. A medic came and took him away. I sat down and took of my gaiter, boot, and finally my sock and my foot was bloody, but my foot was ok. The blood had come from a small chip of rock entering my leg between the knee and ankle, I dug it out with the point of my bayonet and put my sock over it. It was not a deep wound. I think I cut myself with a pocket knife more when I was a kid. All I have to show today is a blue scar on my leg and memories. The blue scar I can put up with but memories at night are something else. I did hear later that we should have been supported by tanks and air cover. But we saw neither.
The only consolation we got was a rum issue after the event, and that should have been issued before we set off. But like every army we had our fair share of cock ups, to coin a phrase. Then we were taken from the 4th Indian Div. and sent to garrison Solum. But that is another story.
2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.